Gorgeous children

Gorgeous children

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Exhibit A taken in Phong Nha

I love kids, always have, and Vietnam has been an incredible place to indulge in their presence. My assessment, that I will gladly defend with photos, is that Vietnamese children are gorgeous and often angelic looking.

I love that there’s little hesitation to talk to unknown adults. For the most part I haven’t received the ‘why are you talking to me?’ stare. I get long looks…but it’s often from the really little kids who are just checking me out. Generally no-one is uptight about strangers talking to their kids, particularly if it’s a foreigner.

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Exhibit B taken on the train to Hai Phong

The most fun has been in restaurants and at parks where you just wave to a child and they start to move in closer. Somara’s an added bonus (for a multitude of reasons of course), because the kids are drawn in by the colour of her skin and hair. On a number of occasions our table in a restaurant has become Grand Central Station with kids running back and forth to grab our attention. Because of the nation wide push to learn English, parents encourage their kids to take any opportunity to speak it, even if it’s just running up, yelling ‘hello’ and dashing off.

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Mai Chau

A lot of the times I’m out walking I see grandmothers and grandfathers pushing their grandkids on bikes around the neighbourhood.  Often they have a bowl of food they’re trying to spoon into their mouths. It’s fun to watch them eating on the run. No stress or tantrums that I can see about getting them to eat; they’re taking it moment by moment enjoying the sights along the way.

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Doan Trang feeding the pigs

Remember what I said about being angelic ‘looking’? I’ve noticed that as always those with the angelic looks also know how to work it…and work it good. They’re able to assuage a bad situation…such as my friend here who was not supposed to be plucking greens from the garden to do this.

Unfortunately there are severals things that challenge my desire to take photos with wild abandon. My work in the film business has ingrained in me the need for the waiver. I can’t help but believe people have the right to decide how and when their image is used and appreciate that being a photographer comes with obligations and responsibilities that are rarely fulfilled. And the last is my belief that sometimes you just need to be in the moment. Nothing between you and your surroundings. All of this leaves me a quagmire that’s easier to acknowledge and move on from, than it is to solve.

I have most easily left these impediments behinds in rural areas where kids are excited to have you hanging out with them.  Somara has stopped to pet A LOT  of dogs and cats in this country…and that’s been another great ice-breaker. What has stuck with me in these situations is the amount of fun that’s had in genuine play. Kids hiding behind structures and slowly creeping up on people…trying with everything they’ve got to catch a bug in a cup or a jar….riding bikes side by side holding on to each other’s handle bars…(and no helmuts)and just combing the beach for shells.

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Thuan An beach near Hue
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Self described BFF’s grasshopper catching in Mai Chau

Parks are few and far between, land is expensive, and most empty space is a construction site or has something edible growing on it. But going to the few parks we’ve found is guaranteed good kid watching. (Yikes it sounds so creepy). Near us is a particularly good park with astroturf, some fantastic climbing structures and a short zip line. The best part is watching the negotiation that goes on between the kids lining up for the always popular zip line. I haven’t seen a scuffle…only a few indignant young girls questioning the boy at the back who thought he was entitled to go to the front of the line. I also loved the man who was lifting his small child up onto the knot to sit, and took it upon himself to stand there for the next 20 minutes helping every other small kid who came along.

I guess it’s not just the kids I love, it’s watching others treasure these young creatures; it’s all quite magnetizing. As are these three beauties of the Canadian kind. And I’ll leave it here.

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Hoi An Pagoda dance

 

 

 

 

PHONG NHA – my kind of FANTASY LAND

PHONG NHA – my kind of FANTASY LAND

I grew up skirting the edges of Fantasy Land (now called Galaxyland) at the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) in Alberta, Canada. On my way to a shop or a movie, the vibrations of this enormous indoor amusement park pulsed through the food court and into neighbouring businesses.  Even though it’s been many years since I’ve stood under its halo, I can still hear the dull roar of the Mind-Bender, a roller-coaster, touted as the largest indoors and infamous since 1986 when three people fell to their deaths. Despite never having been a disciple of Fantasy Land, the title was part of my vernacular.

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So, I usually write my titles last, after I’ve written and re-written the body, searching for a heartbeat to whatever it is I’m working on. But I knew immediately what to call this short piece on one of our most recent journeys.  Phong Nha in Quang Binh Province is a genuine Fantasy Land. Forget that noisy atrocity in a city I so love.  That’s not it.  This is it!  And I know that not everyone will agree and that’s good too.

A fantastical place inspires awe and can be ‘other-worldly’.  I have always loved the sense of anticipation one feels when you’re in such a remarkably beautiful place, that you are overcome by the wonder of what’s around the next corner. A Fantasy Land makes the ordinary sublime.

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Phong Nha, both a village and a national park (called the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park) is in Northern Central Vietnam less than 15 km from the coast. When I use the name, I’m referring to an a fairly large area. The fact that this place holds the world’s largest cave (discovered in 2009) and has a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation has nothing to do with my evaluation.  The reason we went was because a friend told us to.  And from now on, I will always listen to her advice._igp0465

The confluence of rice and cassava fields, tropical jungles, large limestone karsts (almost mountains), and waterways, some of which go for miles underground is at times mesmerizing.  Magic hour according to the light could have been at any number of times of the day. I wish I could have take an aerial shot of the late afternoon light reflecting off the muddy backs of tens of buffalo in bright green fields.  I just couldn’t get high up enough.

I had a sense that this was one of the few rural communities where poverty was being held at bay.  (I have tried to find statistical evidence to get at the truth – but so far nothing). I hope I am not wrong about this. The large buffalo and cow herds grazing in the fields buoyed my optimism, as did the many many large homes throughout the area. I know it’s changing rapidly as word of the ‘enchantment’ spreads and I fear for the future.

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A 70km motorbike journey around the park, twisting and turning our way on switchback roads sparked my imagination of what was in the mass of green.  And even though I felt a pit in my stomach when I saw signs announcing snakes as one of the park’s main inhabitants, I still found the place beguiling. Rumour has it that a Hollywood crew was there earlier in the year filming for the latest King Kong movie. I understand why.

Zip-lining and a foray into the ‘Dark Cave’ to float in the mud was fun and an opportunity to meet some other travellers. But this kind of activity leaves me very conflicted and since we’re talking about Fantasies, let’s move on.

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On the way to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’

Really what I loved most was just being there, and the night we ventured out to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’. Driving 10 km down a very bumpy dirt road, we arrived at the Pub at dusk. I was a bit panicked about the drive home, but settled in as we were handed cold beer and told to pick our chicken.  Happy that Somara was distracted by the two girls who lived there, she and I skedaddled off to play pool while Tim participated in the killing and cooking of dinner. Note that Somara cries in a zoo when she sees animals enclosed let alone slaughtered. Tim however, was in his glory.  Unquestionably the best chicken we’ve eaten in Vietnam, we were also treated to fresh pepper and fresh quava from the trees in front of the house. The magic of this evening was getting to know these two girls, both close in age to Somara, who didn’t just want to play with us, but who were interested in finding out more about Canada.  So smart and so sweet, we hugged them good-bye a mere 90 minutes after meeting them.  As we bumped and stumbled our way home in the dark on our motorbikes Tim suggested we stop and turn off our motors.  In addition to our star extravaganza was the cacophony of unknown creatures many of which must have been frogs.  I wish we had tents, but then we would have troubling getting to sleep.

I don’t want to bottle up our experience or even tell too many of you how to get there; I feel both the privilege and the burden of having been in Phong Nha.  The fantasy of this place may ultimately be fleeting, but I will hang onto it for as long as I can.

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What I Did on Summer Vacation

What I Did on Summer Vacation

This is the first time since I was 14 that I qualify to write the ‘what I did on summer vacation’ essay.  That’s because for the past 30 plus years, I’ve had a full time job during the summer.  In fact for many years summer barely showed itself to me. It just blended into spring and fall, and the continuum of a life where I was constantly working and taking a week’s vacation here and there, wherever it could fit in.  It wasn’t 30 years bereft of anything good in the summer. We have always been in search of the next moment that can be spent on a beach or swimming in a lake, particularly in our gorgeous province; and we’ve had fun renting cottages with friends and travelling to spend time with family in other parts of the country. We even spent two years in Botswana where it’s always summer. But its been a long time since I’ve had the expanse of two full months in front of me with no job and no concrete plans.

So I’ve been anticipating this summer for quite some time. I wanted to come to Vietnam so I could stop working and take the time to just be with Somara and Tim, and ultimately myself. Top priority was spending the summer with Somara. The only hitch being that for the first time in 4 years Somara was going to miss out on Camp Kadimah, a place she really loves. I worried that she would be online watching a play by play of her friends having loads of fun along the South Shore of Nova Scotia, so I kept saying that we were in Vietnam and it was going to be awesome. July 1, came and there we were. No plans, big hopes and 2 months for Somara and me to hang out and experience awesome.

It did not start awesome…in fact it felt more like awful. Our Hanoi apartment is tiny. One thing is out of place and I see it or trip over it. I was (and still am) on Somara constantly to pick things up!  Really there’s no place to spread out. It was and still is scorching hot outside. Some days we wear 3 outfits which leads to a lot of laundry that needs to be hung up. Hanging up is Somara’s job. I admit it, ‘it sucks’. But she chose the position. On top of which every time we’ve opened a door or window for the past few months, it feels like we’re being thrust against a burning hot wall. Getting out can be a real problem.

In addition to the physical challenges, I have fretted about not working since we arrived. A lot of energy has gone into this anxiety. And because I’m not working I put up roadblocks to doing things that cost money, whether it makes sense or not. (I’m working on this one). So I was saying NO to a lot of things, and stressing about every damn thing we bought. Somara was bored and frustrated. I was anxiety ridden. It was tense.

So very early on I was feeling desperate. In an attempt to find something for her to engage in I went looking for camps, activities, anything that preferably involved art. I contacted SolArt the Vietnamese art, music and dance studio next door to where we live. And there was nothing in English. We considered a French sports camp. I kept asking and googling, and googling and asking. We just couldn’t find anything she wanted to do or that was suitable. As this was spinning around and around, I was becoming more and more convinced I needed a job. And so, after a bit of prodding from a Vietnamese friend, I approached SolArt, to see if I could offer the course that Somara wanted but they didn’t have. And without realizing what was really happening, our summer started to turn around.

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SolArt Class

SolArt posted an ad for our class, and within a few weeks we had enough people enrolled. Mostly Vietnamese students, the group included three Irish siblings. Three days a weeks for two hours in the morning, Somara and I shared the wonders of colour and getting glue and paint all over yourself with 9 youngsters fr0m 5 to 11 years of age. Sometimes my activities were too difficult for them, sometimes they got antsy and naughty. Through all of it Somara more than fulfilled her role as my assistant. She refilled paint trays, poured glue, helped tiny fingers hold things in place…and best of all was a kind voice helping some of the younger kids come out from behind the pole or under the table.  On the particularly bad days, we had fun  recounting who had been a ‘butt head’ that day.

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Vit, a.k.a. duck, good for chasing and eating
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Somara on the steps of a Tam Coc Pagoda

In between classes we went swimming, to museums, to the American library, and different parks around town. I know she liked coming out for dinner with our Canadian friends because she’d get really sad about the nights I told her she couldn’t come. We indulged our love of lemon water and avocado smoothies. (I have yet to see a lemon in this country, many many limes, but almost every cafe or restaurant has ‘lemon’ water). One weekend was spent with my friend Pia in Tam Coc, cycling through rice fields and drinking copious amounts of water.  Somara was the first up the steps of every pagoda and she seemed quite happy chasing goats and ducks down the lane in front of our bungalow. The shouts of boredom subsided, and so did the shouts of frustration.

Eventually Somara went to a Chilean Art teacher for three private classes. That experience was hers alone as she took cabs to and from class by herself and decided with Teresa what she wanted to learn. Unfortunately she met Teresa just as she was preparing to return to South America and it was all over much too quickly. However every day since she has been drawing for at least an hour.

On her way to those art classes Somara found a cat hostel that masquerades as a cafe.  She first went with Tim, and then we spent 3 hours one afternoon, stroking the fur of a rather motley crowd of cats. I applaud my patience as the smell in there was kind of like the wall of heat I described earlier…a putrid, acrid reek of cat urine.

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And finally on August 22nd we left for 10 days in Central Vietnam. Tim had a conference in Hue and we were going to turn it into a vacation. For the next 10 days we indulged in new tastes, like succulent crab in tamarind sauce and the dazzling sights and sounds of the region.  We motorbiked, zip lined, rode the train, soaked in muddy caves, swam in the ocean, and countless other pools, and hung out.  Somara got car sick, I lost my voice and we still bickered the way we always do. It was the best. (More on Hue, Phong Nha and Danang later).

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Thuan An beach near Hue
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A view of the river in Phong Nha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Phong Nha sunset

In summary, this summer I taught an art class with my daughter.  I watched Somara find a new passion, drawing for hours on end as she lost herself in an older passion, Harry Potter, listening to the audio books. I found out that she’s willing to try or do anything once, and will tell you if she didn’t like it. She always likes a cookies and cream ice-blend. I watched her watch a lot of youtube videos and movies and of course I nagged her about it. I saw her compassion and kindness for others come out when she interacted with the other kids in our art class.  I heard her vocabulary grow and watched her shorts get shorter. She’s even more confident than when we arrived.  She showed me how to find fun and how to always capitalize on the laughs particularly if there’s something really odd going on.  I learned that when I’m mean and hard on myself, I do the same to others. I need to be kinder to all. And I watched Tim get up every morning and go off to work, so I could have this experience.  July and August of 2016 were spent with my posse, Tim and Somara, bickering and loving one other in this crazy great, hot and stinky Vietnam.

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Phong Nha
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At the Imperial City in Hue